The David Stirton Memoirs
The material for the following article was contributed by David Stirton and the article itself was composed by Kate Conway for the regular column, “Pioneer Days in Wellington”, which appeared in the Guelph Mercury newspaper between March and November 1899.
Mr. David Stirton
The Cholera Scare of 1834
Mr. Stirton thinks he might say something in regard to the general health of the early settlers. For the first two or three years quite a considerable amount of fever and ague prevailed. This may surprise some who see the present dry character of the country, but the surroundings were different in early times. The first settlers put up their houses where the well water would be easily secured, and consequently often built in low situations. They also used surface water, which was impregnated with an immense mass of decaying matter. In consequence of these two mistakes, both calculated to bring about fever and ague, the disease was quite prevalent.
In addition to this,
the only place where people could go and work and be paid in cash was on the
In connection with the ague, Mr. Stirton relates the following of a grand old Irishman named McGinnis who was Mr. Stirton’s neighbours:
Mr. McGinnis had four grown sons and they all went directly to the canal. On reaching the country they secured lodgings in one of the old-fashioned log houses with a stone chimney, the jamb of which came out about six feet from the wall. Mr. McGinnis related his experience as follows: “We all had the ague. The bhoys were shakin’ and the wimmen were shakin’ and mesilf was shakin’ and we were all shakin’ together. By and bye, I thought I’d put a shtop to the shakin’ for it was mesilf thought I would shake to pieces. I knew the toime the shake would be coming on, and I braced myself against the wall with my knees to the jamb. “Now, come on with your shakes; Oi’m ready fur yez,” says Oi. But the first thing I knew the chimney was shakin’, then the house was shakin’, and the whole thing was shakin’!”
As the clearances extended the ague disappeared and the general health of the settlement was very good.
In 1832, the cholera
As has been stated,
This caused considerable excitement in the settlement. There were, however, no more cases, and the cholera never had an epidemic character.
In the neighbouring
“Amusements in the nature of travelling companies were then almost unknown in the new settlement of upper Canada, and the announcement that a menagerie of wild beasts would exhibit in Galt on the 28th of July caused universal interest far and near. For nearly twenty miles around, the coming exhibition was talked about until it became a topic of absorbing interest.
“When the day arrived there was, considering the circumstances, a large attendance, people coming from Waterloo, Beverly, Woolwich, Blenheim, and other places more distant than could have been attracted by anything less exciting than a menagerie was in those early times. The day proved intensely warm, in fact a regular “scorcher”, and from all accounts the collection of wild animals was meagre and the dens and their occupants were extremely filthy. The odour was so marked as to detract seriously from the comfort of the audience, and the entertainment was hardly over when rumours began to prevail that the company had brought the much dreaded disease of cholera with them to the village.
The report first arose from the illness of one of the showmen. He had been brought to the village a day or two before the menagerie arrived, and fears that his complaint was cholera induced some of the villagers to go to Mr. Shade, who was the only magistrate at the time, and ask him to consider whether the exhibition should not be prevented. Mr. Shade, however, doubted whether he had the power to do so, and seemed, besides, rather disinclined to interfere with an exhibition which appeared to add importance to the village, and would certainly cause the circulation of a good deal of money. After examining the showman, Dr. Miller pronounced his complaint to be real Asiatic cholera. Shortly afterwards, the Doctor said to Mr. William Buchanan, of Branchton, who had been at the show from the country: “Go home! You’ll hear more of this. That man’s dying of Asiatic cholera!”
“His fears, unfortunately, proved too true. That frightful plague, in its worst form, had been introduced by the menagerie, and already the seeds of death were developing in many of those who had attended the fatal entertainment.
The exhibition took place on Monday, and by Wednesday night and Thursday the cholera was raging with almost unparalleled malignity and fatality. The harrowing scenes, which occurred, can never be erased from the memories of those who passed through them. The agony of the stricken, the swiftness of death, the crude board coffins and the hasty burials, in some cases within a few minutes after the last breath was drawn, turned the recently hopeful village into a charnel-house from which many fled in despair, whilst all but a few were paralysed with fear.
Friday night, but certainly within a week, nearly one fifth of all the
villagers had fallen victims to the plague, whilst not a few from the
country, who were present at the exhibition, had also succumbed to the
ruthless destroyer. Dr. Miller, who
had seen one hundred persons per day die of cholera in Montreal, declared
that he had never seen a place of the same population as Galt suffer so much,
nor the disease appear so virulent. Such widespread mortality in so small a
community and in so brief a space of time recalled the ravages of the plague
Notwithstanding the proximity of West Puslinch to Galt, and that numbers from Puslinch had gone to visit the menagerie, the disease broke out in one family only, two members of whom died. This was a family by the name of Smith and the two bodies were buried on the top of the hill on the leading road from Mr. Stirton’s old neighbourhood to Hespeler.
The family of John
Cockburn, together with Thos. Todd and Francis Beatty, came to Canada in this
year, and while they lay off at Toronto, Mrs. Todd, mother of the late Thos.
Todd, and sister of Mrs. Francis Beatty, died of cholera, but there were no
more cases in either family. It is
The preceding article appeared in the
remarkable scrapbooks of Herbert Fairbairn Gardiner,
volume 149, pages 12-13. As of May
2003, the Gardiner scrapbooks could be viewed in the Special Collections
Department of the
Mr. Herbert Fairbairn Gardiner
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